In the spring of 2007 I was a witness to the aftermath of people doing something stupid. Okay, maybe not stupid, just ill-advised without consideration to the possible outcomes of their actions…
I had just been promoted and was working in my office late on a Saturday night. The explosion came without any warning, sending my heart to my throat. What the hell?! There was only one other person in the building, so I let him know that I was going out to investigate. I noticed a few things: there was a party going on at the hall across the street – a wedding reception, it turns out – and some bushes on fire on the corner. I went back into my building and let my coworker know what I’d seen; he called 911 and relayed the information (he’s in charge of the electric utility system, so I know he did a whole lot more than just call 911, but this is MY story, not his – sorry Mike).
When I went back to the front of my building, I noticed something worse: there was smoke coming from the roof of the party hall. I yelled to Mike again to give him an update and dashed out to go help. There weren’t many people outside, so I guessed that people did not know that their building was on fire. The power was out in the building, but the majority of the people were in the back lawn area. I corralled the first person I found. Fortunately, he, too, knew a little bit about building search and evacuation, so we teamed up and cleared the building.
As usual in Santa Clara, the Fire Department arrived within three minutes of having received the 911 call. We’d already cleared most of the building, and I was attending to a woman who had a burn on her hand. And on her dress. Her wedding dress. I felt a tug on my arm and looked up at a man whose eyes were wide with shock or fear, I’m not sure which. He pointed to a wire on the ground, and my heart was once again in my throat. It was a power line. They most certainly are not supposed to be on the ground. I hurriedly escorted people away from the line and got the fire department to the area. The line wasn’t moving, and I knew the power was out in the building, but one rule to live by when dealing with electricity is that if you don’t know for absolutely certain that a line is dead, you must assume that it is live. Someone touching it could get fried.
Everything finally clicked in my head, and I felt stupid for it having taken me so long to put it all together. Something had taken the power line down. The burned remains of Mylar balloons were on the ground. Ah ha! The culprit!
It didn’t take the Fire Department long to extinguish the fire on the roof (it wasn’t too bad) and the bigger fire in the bushes. I continued to help the bride make sure that all of her guests were safe. During that time, she told me what had happened. The reception was breaking up, and everyone thought it would be beautiful to release the Mylar balloons and watch them soar away. Except that’s not quite what happened.
None of the guests noticed the overhead power lines.
When the balloons were released, they went directly into the lines. I won’t get technical here, but what happens when Mylar balloons contact power lines is a great big BOOM. In this case, the strand of line between two poles burned away from their connections at the poles and dropped. One end landed on the hall’s roof, catching the roof on fire, and then dropped down into the party. It hit the bride’s hand and then her dress. The front of her dress melted and shriveled up; it looked like burned plastic. The other end of the line burned at the next pole and dropped into the bushes, catching them on fire.
It was amazing that the minor burn on the bride’s hand was the extent of the medical injuries. But from what I saw, the incident may have been the beginning of a different type of fatality. Granted, I didn’t know the wedding couple, but my impression of their dynamics was not a positive one. During the entire incident, the only thing the groom did was summon the limo and snivel about how long the bride was taking to get her hand looked at by the Fire Department. And then he started yelling when she just wanted to be sure her guests were safe, ordering her to get into the limo.
It had been a beautiful, clear, cloudless night. I couldn’t help but feel that since it wasn’t possible to have lightning strike, having a power line drop was the next best thing. A more distinct sign of a doomed marriage couldn’t exist.
But the wedding isn’t the reason for this blog. The Mylar balloons are. Yes, they are pretty, and yes, they hold the helium nicely, but they are the bane of overhead power lines. Laws require that these balloons are tied to a weight to keep them from flying away. Unfortunately, the people who buy the balloons don’t recognize the hazard these represent and will, like the wedding party, let the balloons go.
My neighborhood had a power outage this last weekend. It was caused by… you guessed it… those evil, evil Mylar balloons.
They should be outlawed.